Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Outside the Government: The Gathering

It’s September 2nd, 2011. Katy Perry is at number one with “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.).” In the five days since Let’s Kill Hitler aired, the Battle of Tripoli wrapped up. That’s about it. And Miracle Day ticked one week closer to being over, of course. 

It being an odd-numbered episode, tit’s time for the show to revamp itself once again, with characteristic subtlety. Now we’re in a big metaphor about the financial crash. Way back with Partners in Crime, I suggested that Davies got very lucky with Donna, creating a character who was visibly about the anxieties of ordinary middle class people in a declining economy. Now Davies has the exact opposite luck: he’s decided to make this show focus on the financial crisis, and he ends up doing it after the London riots and two weeks before the Occupy movement kicks up. He’s almost, but not quite, as completely screwed over as Mark Gatiss is in this regard, but that’s for Monday. 

It’s not that Davies’s approach is wrong in light of the Occupy movement and all of that. But there’s something casually jarring about it. The empty streets and quiet resignation of the world isn’t a bad guess for what the world would be like in the wake of crises like the ones Torchwood has shown, but it’s a guess that lacks all of the immediately compelling and arresting imagery of the world it’s being transmitted into. Even before you take up any questions about the quality of what “The Gathering” has to say about the world, you’re stuck with the fact that summer of 2011 just doesn’t quite feel like the time to be saying it. It feels not entirely unlike the Pertwee era in Season Eleven, or the Troughton era in Season Six - however good it may be at a given moment, it’s become a tired and old-fashioned sort of show. 

One need only look over at Doctor Who to get a sense of this. However awkward Let’s Kill Hitler may be, almost nothing about Doctor Who in this era is playing it safe. Whereas Torchwood feels the exact opposite at this point - like it’s just using a well worn playbook with minor variations to tell stories that, if they’re not past their sell-by date, it’s only because someone slapped on a new label with a later date. To be honest, the biggest impact Miracle Day has had so far was keeping A Good Man Goes to War from using Jack like it was originally intended to. This isn’t a show that knows why it exists anymore, save perhaps to be a big American co-production. It exists to try the formula that worked in the UK in the US, in the hopes that it’ll make more money. And even that’s been quietly usurped by Doctor Who, which has finally hit it big in America and had major episodes done with co-production money from an American network. 


So we shuffle grimly towards a finale in which everything has been arbitrarily reconfigured yet again. We’re on the fifth premise for the show, and it’s miles from where we started. Indeed, the “nobody dies” thing has effectively been entirely abandoned, such that people talk casually about killing with only occasional use of the phrase “category one” in order to nod at the core premise. We’ve been through “introduce Torchwood to Americans,” fighting conspiracies in LA, the camps, a story about Jack’s past, and now we’re on a sort of trumped up “this is the final battle” plot because that’s what goes at the end of a series. But there’s no ideas left. The series is wrapping up with structure, not with content, coming to a conclusion that is ultimately defined by the narrative conventions of a season of television, as opposed to something that comes organically out of what’s gone before. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Things That He Might Remember (The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon)

In this scene Clara is cleverly, albeit tastelessly, disguised as
a swastika. 
It’s April 23rd, 2011. LMFAO are at number one with “Party Rock Anthem,” while Jennifer Lopez, Rihanna, Adele, and Katy Perry also chart. Since Christmas, the Tunisian government has fallen, Hosni Mubarak has resigned in Egypt, and civil wars have broken out in Libya and Syria. Spring is in the air, as it were. While in the news during this story, Prince William and Catherine Middleton are married in Westminster Abbey.

It’s been just over three years and one month since this story aired. This is an odd gap to try to historicize within. It’s recent enough that it’s still easy to remember exactly how this felt on transmission, with the Moffat era’s brief quasi-imperial phase (aka “the bit Toby Haynes directed”) marching on with something that felt fresh and innovative. And yet it’s old enough, or, at least, Doctor Who’s style has changed enough since it that rewatching it, what jumps out is how little of this story would be done this way in 2014. At the time the tagline, acknowledged in interviews by Moffat, was that they were opening the season with what felt like a season finale. And sure enough, that’s the effect given, not least because of its two part structure.

But rewatched, it’s striking how slow bits are. The first episode uses half its runtime for what is in effect a massive slab of exposition, delivered before the Doctor has even begun investigating the plot. Yes, there’s a lot to cover between the Doctor’s death, how the Silence work, and a recap on River, but the way in which the episode repeatedly re-illustrates the concepts, contriving to show us the Silence making people forget multiple times, or finding multiple excuses to have River and the Doctor reiterate that they meet out of order, is striking simply because it’s the sort of thing isn’t done anymore. The series taking that kind of time to lay out exposition in 2014 is unimaginable. 

There are ultimately two things that are lost in this. The first is the more obvious, which is Moffat’s exposition scenes. These have always been one of Moffat’s talents, simply because he’s adept at using the skills he honed in sitcoms for years to smooth out exposition, so that the scenes are full of gags and little brilliances that hum along. For all that the first half of The Impossible Astronaut is pure and unadulterated exposition, it’s also an opportunity to just let a very good cast do their thing. The four-man TARDIS crew is scintilating, and everybody gets a constant stream of good moments here. It’s telling that this ends up being the last time we see River in this mode - on every subsequent appearance, her primary role is to haunt and destabilize the narrative. But here we get her as a wisecracking, thrilling, fun character in her own right. This sort of willingness to luxuriate in spinning your wheels and just let an entertaining and skilled cast be entertaining and skilled rapidly drains out of Doctor Who after this story, for better and for worse.

The cast is bolstered significantly here by a particularly savvy choice of settings. This marks only the third time that Doctor Who has crossed its own timestream, so to speak, and done a story that is consciously situated in a historical setting during which Doctor Who existed. In this case, The Impossible Astronaut takes place during the transmission of The Space Pirates, while Day of the Moon is during the period where everyone was waiting for Jon Pertwee to show up. And more than just being a moment in history that Doctor Who was actually on the air for, this is a moment of history defined by a sci-fi iconography. What this means is that the story gets an incredibly rich setting (added to by the decision to use the big overseas shoot to film in the middle of Utah and get some gorgeous establishing shots) that it can draw from whenever things risk getting a bit slow. Richard Nixon, in particular, turns out to be astonishingly good if you need a spare bit of comic relief, which, to be fair, America has known for decades. Just wait til we discover Jeremy Thorpe. 

The other thing you lose after this, and this is in many regards the subtler one, is a certain complexity of storytelling. The fact of the matter is that The Impossible Astronaut really does have an absolutely ludicrous amount of stuff to introduce in a short window, and that’s only the stuff it’s admitting to showing you. It also has to quietly introduce the backdrop for the entire River Song/Silence/Madame Kovarian arc, and do that with enough vividness that it can be referenced for an entire season. It’s not just in the matter of time spent that this story is heavy on exposition - it’s also the anchor for a multi-episode plot arc that’s going to be told completely out of sequence. This isn’t merely the most structurally complex story Doctor Who ever has tried, it’s also a limit point from which the series subsequently backs away. Even if it had worked, and clearly there’s no consensus that it did, this stretches the approach to its limit.

And so The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon stands as a sort of last outpost in a particular direction of Doctor Who. This is brave and probably wise. It’s a good story, and it’s good that the approach in question went out on a high note. Yes, everything that comes after it is subsequently rough, but that’s what happens when you try to find a new way of doing things. It takes a bit. Arguably it’s not until late 2013 that Moffat really figures out the details of the approach that replaces this one. (Arguably it’s not even then, though you’ll not see me making that argument) But what we might think of as the classical Moffat era really wraps up here.

Fittingly enough, it does so in a story that is largely about trying to figure out what to do after Blink. We already got that to some extent with Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone and its intensive focus on the Weeping Angels as constructs of narrative, but here we get a story that, on a very basic and fundamental level, is mostly about the camera. This was always a key aspect of the Weeping Angels - the fact that they obey the camera, and thus obey the viewer’s eyes, necessitating a continual act of watching. Indeed, it’s the entire joke of the Weeping Angels: whatever you do, don’t go behind the sofa. The Silence are a clever spin on this - ostensibly, at least, they exist separate from the camera. The camera can show them, but when it cuts away the audience remembers them. And that holds nicely right up until Day of the Moon, when suddenly the Silence start disappearing into cuts.

The key scene, and it’s possibly the most brilliant single scene in the program’s history, is the one of Amy exploring the children’s home in what is structured as a continuing scene in which editing is merely used to change camera angles and not to compress time, except that within the scene Amy’s hands and body steadily fill with tally marks that signify the presence of the Silence. In other words, the camera, which previously seemed “on our side,” unexpectedly becomes an instrument of the monsters, who can now hide within the medium. From a viewer’s perspective, the point is even more troubling: we can no longer trust that what the camera shows us is actually what’s happening. The Silence, as villains, have gained the power to manipulate the entire narrative to suit their purpose. It’s terribly fresh and interesting - it’s the one moment of the episode that still feels unequivocally edgy and creative today. Conveniently, it’s also the one moment that flags where the show is going to go, instead of just shamelessly playing to its own established strengths. This sort of trick is very quickly going to become the default mode the show works in. It’s going to be much less self-congratulatory and flashy after this, but it’s going to be not just normal but actively mundane and ordinary. 

And yet all of this flash and style is ultimately a feint designed to draw attention away from the fact that everything in this story is actually about River Song. Ironically, the main clue to this is the utter lack of them: this is the first River Song story we’ve had in which there are essentially no revelations regarding the character. Instead there’s just summary of everything we’ve seen before. Because, of course, the real revelations are happening away from River. She’s all over this story, as the astronaut at the lake, as the child in the suit, and as Amy’s pregnancy. Every aspect of the backstory here is River, but with River in plain sight, for the moment, this becomes relatively invisible. Even if a viewer guesses some component part of the mystery, the whole of it is almost impossible to intuit, despite the fact that the answer to any given question is almost certain to end up being “River.” Given this, the fact that the story focuses so intently on the ways in which this relationship is painful for River, both in terms of her “far worse day” and in the sad finale of their first/last kiss is telling with regards to where the real meat of this arc is going to be.

But underneath this is what it is tempting to call a fundamental problem with the entire approach. The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon was conceived of as “opening with a season finale.” The trouble is, of course, that you’re then stuck without a season finale. Ultimately, all the later revelations exist to set this story up, and they’re just placed after it instead. And it’s a joy - the mix of elements works marvelously here. It’s only going to be when we have to start treating the elements individually as parts of their own stories, instead of as a big, heady, bombastic jumble that things are going to start to go a bit wrong.

So in effect what we have is a story that shows why it has to seem dated barely three years after transmission. Because this story is and always was an endpoint - the furthest a particular approach could be taken without getting to the point where further improvements and refinements are terribly minimalist. In some ways this has been visible ever since The Big Bang, where Moffat calmly took the Russell T Davies finale to its logical limit and let the narrative collapse play out completely, then got on with it and told a different story. Here we get everything that Moffat is associated with put together into more or less the definitive statement of it. It’s as definitive a Steven Moffat story as The Pandorica Opens was a Russell T Davies story. And so what naturally follows it is a challenge to start doing something that isn’t just the well worn set of tricks that Moffat has been developing fairly linearly since The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances.

But first we have to plunge into the uneasy process of remaking it. This is going to be rough going at times, to say the least. It has to be. At its best, one of the things Doctor Who has always been extraordinary at is making new mistakes. This is true on a very fundamental creative level, where even from the very beginning of the program you are forced to say things like, “well in their defense, resolving two weeks of sci-fi experimental theater with ‘oh, bother, the switch was stuck’ is not something I’ve ever seen done before,” up through the days of “racism and giant rats, huh” and “holy fuck that coat” and at last to things like “wait, they lied to their brother and told him he was a robot?” This is terribly important, because if you don’t make new mistakes you’ll never discover that obvious mistakes like evil robot salt shakers, hiring a construction worker dressed in a ludicrous scarf as your lead actor, a giant fascist Bertie Bassett, or a searing deconstruction of the normative rape/revenge plots that dominate sci-fi media in the early 21st century that argues for a focus on women’s narrative and experiences are, in fact, brilliant and important ideas that the world would be a poorer place without. 

Which is to say that in many ways an entirely new sort of Moffat era begins here. One that has not, in my opinion, been particularly well-analyzed in a “what is this piece of television trying to do in the first place” sort of way. To be honest, too much Moffat criticism has focused on Season Five, with everything after it treated as “the bits that don’t work as well.” This may be a true statement about them, but it’s in no way the only interesting thing about them.

And the funny thing is, even at the time I was aware of all of this. I saw these two episodes two weeks early, at their New York City debut. My sister camped outside the movie theater for tickets at midnight the night before, and I drove into the city after my class and joined her about… oh, fifty or sixty people back in line once everyone in front of us had done versions of the same thing. The event had originally been planned for one movie theater, and I think by the end every free screen in the place was showing the episodes, and then they had another set of screenings after for the people who were too far back in line. But Tori and I were actually in the main room, so got to see the Q&A with Moffat, Smith, Kingston, Gillan, and Darvill, which was wonderful. I remember being struck, for neither the first nor last time, by the sheer number of female fans cosplaying as Amy and River, clearly invested in the show as it was in that very moment like I’d really never seen for Doctor Who before. 

I’d been writing TARDIS Eruditorum for a couple of months at that point. I was late in the Hartnell era, writing up the post on the Quatermass serials, if I recall, and reading the novelization of The Smugglers. And it was the first new episode since I’d started. The impetus to write the blog really came out of the end of Season Five and the fact that I couldn’t get the show out of my head in the months after that season ended. I’d been a fan for years, but something about this precise moment of the show just felt electric and fresh and new. Like there was so much potential in it. And since I couldn’t get it out of my head, I figured I’d start writing about it. And these two episodes just… blew me away. There were so many questions and things to pick over. So many things that seemed interesting and innovative. Like the show could do anything. And more than anything, I wondered if it could.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Saturday Waffling (July 19th, 2014)

The first fifteen parts of the Swamp Thing chapter are done. Total will be more than twenty, not quite sure how many more. Twenty-five tops, I’d say. Probably a bit lower. Probably going to be twenty-three or some utterly odd number like that where there’s no intuitive sense of an act structure.

Best parts so far are Part Four (7/25), Part Eight (8/22), Part Ten (9/5), and Part Twelve (9/19).

Best cliffhanger is Part Eleven, although I’m also very proud of where Part Six takes up and leaves off. Total chapter length is currently 43,595. It is longer than the Flood book. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Outside the Government (End of the Road)

It’s August 26th, 2011. Katy Perry is at number one with “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” a song that sounds suspiciously like it is about having fun. How ghastly. In other outdoor places, rebel forces begin the battle that will seize Tripoli and overthrow the reign of Muammar Gaddafi. In a more indoor flavor of news, a dying Steve Jobs steps down from Apple. Also, there’s crap on television to tolerate. 

It is in some ways helpful and convenient for Miracle Day to cough up an outright bad episode, if only so that the rest of the season can be put into some sort of perspective. Like “Rendition,” “End of the Road” is essentially a bottle episode concerned with getting the story from point A to point B. Also like “Rendition,” it runs into the problem that there is not actually very much room between point A and point B. Unlike “Rendition,” it doesn’t cover this up with an extended piece of ludicrous goofiness involving ripping apart an airplane to chelate someone’s blood with degreaser. This is, shockingly enough, a pity.

Instead what we have is a return to the bad old days of Season Two of Torchwood, with an episode that is just completely misconceived and misbegotten. The plot consists entirely of Captain Jack sitting around in a room all episode. Sometimes, for variety, they cut to a hallway, or even have some characters go outside. There’s the most impressively expedient character death ever as Nana Visitor’s character is blown up in a thoroughly contrived car bomb once her exposition is resolved. Esther’s sister comes back purely to motivate Esther to do something stupid again. The episode doesn’t even entirely understand where its reveals are, dropping the discovery that Charlotte works for the Families in a completely swallowed plot beat. The contact lenses acquire magical new powers out of nowhere. And the plot holes are worse and bigger than usual. (I particularly like that Jack is brought to the Colasanto estate so that Angelo can tell him how the Miracle started despite the fact that a) Angelo doesn’t know and b) Angelo is dying and apparently can’t speak.) 

So it’s an incompetently made mess. Fair enough. And certainly some of the problems - the use of American cult film/television stars for hazily defined cameo roles, the plot holes, the tendency to bring in seemingly major events just to motivate a plot development and then discard them - are endemic to Miracle Day in general, merely coming to a particular head here. The writing credit speaks volumes - “Story by Ryan Scott, Teleplay by Ryan Scott and Jane Espenson,” which is to say, they had a script in particularly dire shape and handed it off to Jane Espenson in a desperate attempt to fix it. (Also rather sizable is the fact that Jane Espenson gets script salvage duties, which is to say, Russell T Davies isn’t even involved enough to be doing rewrites.) 

But what really stands out is the degree to which this isn’t normal for Miracle Day. Yes, the episode is crap, but at its core the problem isn’t just the sloppiness but the fact that there’s not actually much of an idea behind the episode. Even the title is inscrutable - what road ends, exactly? The core team’s interaction? Sure, they’re split up, but it’s not the first time, and it’s not like they’re not going to keep working on the Miracle. And that’s unusual. Whatever problems Miracle Day has, they’ve generally been on the aggregate level as opposed to the episode level. Each individual episode has generally known what it wants to do and what sort of story it wants to tell, and has done a reasonably competent job of achieving its own goals. It’s just that they haven’t added up to a coherent series on the whole. This is, to be sure, a problem. But it’s worth noting, in contrast, that the series hasn’t done this, which is to say, an episode with no ideas, no concept, and nothing to do besides spinning its wheels until it finally reaches fifty-five minutes and can do a cliffhanger. 


At least Doctor Who’s back next week.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Week in Comics (7/16/14)

A new Wicked and the Divine this week. And it's brilliant, spoilers. But, also spoilers, it's not my pick of the week.

Fables #142

I honestly couldn't tell you why this book is still running. I mean, I suppose soon it won't be, so that makes sense, but we're at the point where I look through it and I cannot identify a single character having anything interesting happen to them. It's turned to a meandering pseudo-epic that's just retreading the same ground. I'm starting to be unconvinced I even care how it ends. D

Moon Knight #5

I could have sworn this came out a week or two ago, so I'm not sure why it only appeared in my shop today. Bit of a... Ellis does an entire action issue to let Declan Shalvey show off. Declan Shalvey shows off. Result. Ellis does things like this occasionally, and I'm never entirely convinced by them from a readerly perspective, but I see why they're done and what the point is, and I respect them. Very much a comic lover's comic, this one. B

Ms. Marvel #6 (Pick of the Week)

This is an absolute delight. I compared this to Bendis's Ultimate Spider-Man run last time, noting that Wilson is doing a masterful execution of that formula, and that's true, but there's also a wonderful splash of Gillen and McKelvie's Young Avengers here, with a protagonist who's as 2014 as it's possible to be. Doge speak, video game references, discussions of fanfiction, and a character who's grounded in the world. The discussion between Kamala and Sheikh Abdullah is as good as her teamup with Wolverine. This is a joy of a book, and one that I suspect pretty much anyone who likes superheroes at all would enjoy. Top notch. A+

Original Sin #6

Oh for God's sake, this issue doesn't even pretend to have anything happen. It's not even bothering to spin its wheels. It's just letting them sit there, sinking banally into the mud. Why is this eight issues? Why is this comic happening? Why is it being inflicted on all Marvel readers by making it a big crossove? Please make it fucking stop already. Argh.  F

Original Sin #3.2 Hulk vs Iron Man #2

Hm. The whole is somewhat less than the sum of its parts, I fear. Although it's starting to become clear how this is going to pay off the end of Gillen's Iron Man run, and the last page is great, as are several of the earlier ones, there's also a sense that this is going to resolve timidly and banally. The question of exactly how Tony tampered with Bruce's gamma bomb is being danced around to the point where it's all but inevitable that it's not actually going to be Tony's fault. Which is fine, and even preferable, but feels too telegraphed at this stage. All in all, this isn't quite working for me, although it's better than the first issue. C+, though I really hope that actually is a better grade than the first issue.

She-Hulk #6

Well that's the single worst fill-in art job I've seen in ages. Including an unfollowably messy seven page fight scene. I'm at a loss. And the actual plot is playing its mysteries way too close to the chest. Two issues of attention to this "blue file" thing, and there's still very little in the way of explanation. It's just mystery upon mystery, in an incoherently drawn book. Messy and hugely disappointing. F

Silver Surfer #4

The decision to return to Earth and commit to at least a couple of issues there is a surprising one, given that this book initially presented itself as a sort of mad cosmic romp. Presumably this is in part to give more characterization to Dawn, and it's a good call in that regard, but it's surprising and feels like it breaks up the book's momentum a smidge. Still, lots to enjoy here, and this remains a super fun book. A-

Uncanny X-Men #23

It's a problem with Bendis's starts to storylines. I'm not one to complain about decompression or Bendis's overall style, but I think it is a fair criticism that the overall structure he uses makes the starts of his storylines awfully slow. We've got another case, basically, of "here is the solicited premise of the book explained." Large swaths of the issue are devoted to the ongoing plots of the series, which are good plots, and fine. And the cliffhanger is... the most obvious revelation ever. Of course Cyclops is going to be there for the reading of Charles Xavier's will. In a comic featuring his team of X-Men. It's not that this is bad, and I'm still very much interested in the overall plot, but and two pages of Dazzler crying in a bathroom is the most Kieron Gillen scene ever not to be written by Kieron Gillen, but the fact remains that this is not a good advertisement for its own storyline. B-

The Wicked and the Divine #2

It's a testament to how sharp this issue is that you almost don't notice the sheer amount of it that's focused on world-building and exposition. It has to be done, of course, given the ornate premise of this series and its minimum of fifteen major characters, and the second issue is basically where you have to do it. But consistently, whenever there's exposition to be done, either Gillen is in with some phenomenally sharp writing or McKelvie is there to provide some sharp visuals. The two page spread of Lucifer's descent into godhood is magnificent, as are all the Underground scenes at the end. Four pages of two people talking int he National Portrait Gallery move along at a breeze. The final page... yeah. It's not as good as the first issue, but nobody seriously expected that it would be, did they? It's still brilliant. A+

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Outside the Government: Immortal Sins

It’s August 19th, 2011, and the last week in which “Party Rock Anthem” is at number one. In news, Michele Bachmann briefly appears to be a credible Presidential candidate due to the inherent silliness that is the Ames Straw Poll, and not a lot else happens. It’s a dull enough week that Miracle Day’s “Immortal Sins” is actually one of the highlights.

Though truth be told, more than any other episode of Miracle Day, this is the showpiece. Two interleaved stories that are virtually two-handers, one of which finally and triumphantly gives us the Gwen/Jack content that the show has been missing, the other one of which gives an effectively touching and tragic love story that sets up a bunch of background on the Miracle. Rex and Esther are pushed almost entirely to the margins of the story, while Oswald sits out another week entirely. This is, more than any other episode of the run, one that is made for people who were familiar with Torchwood and invested in it as a long-running show as opposed to as a new thing on Starz.

It is in many ways the Gwen/Jack scenes that are the highlights. Eve Myles has always been Torchwood’s strongest element, and she’s always been capable of getting John Barrowman to up his game. Gwyneth Horder-Payton, directing, doesn’t have to do much more than get some basic camera angles on a car and let the two of them go, and through some marvelous use of mirrors to control how the characters can and can’t look at each other she makes their scenes together absolutely sing. Underlying it is an absolutely majestic dynamic: two people who are absolutely best friends but who are also immediately ready to accept that only one of them is walking away from this. Their joy at being saved, accompanied by their firm reiterations that they take back nothing they said, is marvelous, and it’s almost certainly the best set of scenes in Miracle Day.

The scenes with Jack and Angelo are not quite as solid, but are still quite good. Espenson writes a relationship deftly and efficiently, and Daniele Favilli plays Angelo with deft humanity, making his betrayal of Jack seem like an inevitable price for Jack’s hubris in assuming he can charm his way out of everything. Espenson makes a couple really deft decisions, including giving Jack the faux-confession scene in which Barrowman, for the first time in Torchwood, gets to play the character as the libidinous rake he did in the Eccleston season of Doctor Who.

Ah, yes, Doctor Who. Because that’s the other thing “Immortal Sins” does - play up Torchwood’s heritage as a product of Doctor Who, with explicit acknowledgment of both that show and The Sarah Jane Adventures. This is, to say the least, weird. Not least because attempting to fit Miracle Day into any sort of coherent shared universe with Doctor Who is, shall we say, a challenge. Not necessarily a huge one - it’s not exactly unbelievable that the Miracle would fail to come up in any of the on-screen conversations we see within Doctor Who. It’s not like anybody on Doctor Who ever talks about 9/11 or the 2005 London Underground bombings, after all. So the three months or so where the Miracle happens have never been acknowledged - someday there will surely be some bit of tie-in media that features the Doctor on Earth during the Miracle that will sort this all out. 

What’s more troubling - and this is, to be fair, something that plagues Children of Earth as well - is that Torchwood has been increasingly willing to just casually break the underlying structure of the world. It’s not so much that it’s difficult to square away the continuity problems between the two shows as it is that the two shows just don’t feel like they’re depicting the same world. The horrible events of Miracle Day are dissonant with Doctor Who. The comparisons to 9/11 or the Underground bombings are apt - it’s not so much that these events feel like they didn’t happen in Doctor Who as that it would be deeply unsettling and discordant to actually reference them directly. And so for Miracle Day to play up its connection with Doctor Who is odd, especially as it’s done in the exact opposite way of Gwen’s reference to Doctor Who in Children of Earth, which is done in such a way as to highlight the fact that the story doesn’t fit with Doctor Who.

In this regard the reference to The Sarah Jane Adventures is even stranger. It is at least possible to imagine that the Miracle struck the world in a way that basically exempted the existing characters in Doctor Who. I mean, you can’t really avoid having, say, Clara be hit by it, but you can easily watch Miracle Day and just assume that Amy and Rory were off-world for the entire three month stretch of the Miracle. What you can’t easily do, however, is assume that Sarah Jane, Luke, Clyde, and Rani just avoided the Miracle entirely. To put the reference to The Sarah Jane Adventures in forces the audience, however fleetingly, to imagine children’s television in a world where people are being incinerated while still alive, and where, as we’ll see in two episodes, there’s a massive economic collapse. This is at best difficult, and at worst terribly and unpleasantly upsetting.

It’s also worth pointing out, because someone is going to, the massive continuity screwup that happens in the course of all this intertextuality, which is to have Jack know about the “fixed point in time” stuff roughly eighty years before he jumps on the exterior of the TARDIS in Utopia and actually learns about it. Sure, you can work around that if you really want to, but the reality is that it’s a gaffe, and one that speaks volumes about the lack of any actual oversight going on here, since it’s the sort of thing that Russell T Davies would typically catch in his sleep. (He might decide to ignore it, certainly, but he’d catch it, and it’s tough to see why he’d ignore it, since it’s extraneous to the scene.) 


But for all the awkwardness of the intertextuality, it’s also a nice slice of fanservice in the course of the one episode of Miracle Day that actually bothers to pay attention to the preceding three seasons of Torchwood and to engage with the show that this ostensibly is. It also marks the third episode in a row that more or less works, and further bolsters the claim that Miracle Day was hobbled by a badly weak start. But it’s also notable that the episode of Miracle Day that works best is the one that is mostly invested in everything other than Miracle Day

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Numb and Silent Depths (The Last War in Albion Part 53: Pasko's Swamp Thing, Loose Ends)

This is the third of a currently unknown number of parts of Chapter Eight of The Last War in Albion, focusing on Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing.

The stories discussed in this chapter are currently available in six volumes. The first volume is available in the US here, and the UK here. Finding volume 2-6 are, for now, left as an exercise for the reader, although I will update these links as the narrative gets to those issues.

Previously in The Last War in Albion: Originally created as a short story in a horror anthology, Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson's Swamp Thing had a brief and glorious run in the 1970s before petering out until 1982, when Wes Craven directed a movie based on the comics. 

"In the end, the darkness swallows everything. Space vanishes. Time is no longer even a memory. All is lost in the numb and silent depths of forever. Captain Britain is dead." - Alan Moore

Figure 388: Swamp Thing returns to
capitalize on the Wes Craven film.
(From Saga of the Swamp Thing #1, 1982)
It would not do, however, for DC to not have a Swamp Thing comic in publication to go along with the movie (despite onerous conditions related to the sale of the movie rights that meant that DC could not actually produce any merchandise related to Swamp Thing whatsoever), and so in 1982 a new title, Saga of the Swamp Thing, was started with scripts by Martin Pasko, an industry veteran with decades of experience, and art by relative newcomer Tom Yeates. Under Pasko the book was a horror anthology in the same general vein as the Wein/Wrightson issues, albeit with a seventeen-page cap on the stories due to backup stories featuring another cult DC horror character, the Phantom Stranger, and a rather convoluted metaplot involving a spooky child with supernatural powers, a villainous group called the Sunderland Corporation that was hunting Swamp Thing, a reporter named Elizabeth Tremayne and her partner, a doctor named Dennis, both of whom were also trying to find Swamp Thing, and a mysterious illness that was slowly killing Swamp Thing. 

Figure 389: Ramsey Campbell would
go on to write an introduction to the first
collection of Moore's Swamp Thing stories
where he proclaimed that "the new Swamp
Thing
 can stand beside the finest works of
contemporary horror fiction."
Many, though not all of these plot points were resolved in the thirteenth issue of the title, the last by Tom Yeates. After two issues by a guest creative team, Pasko picked up his remaining plot lines, mostly focusing on the Sunderland Corporation, in Saga of the Swamp Thing #16, now joined by a new artistic team of Stephen Bissette and John Totleben. Almost immediately, however, tensions began to arise. Bissette had a lifelong love of drawing monsters, and so it was in many ways a natural fit for him, but he and Totleben also came onto the project with ideas for what they wanted to draw, which they sent to Pasko. Pasko was, by both his own account and Bissette’s, less than impressed. The exact nature of these ideas is, however, less than clear. As Bissette tells it, “we were reading Ramsey Campbell and Stephen King, and we were loving that new wave of horror films that was hitting around then - The Howling and David Cronenberg. I was like, ‘man, this should be transformational! This should be about embracing change, instead of constantly longing for what was lost.’” Pasko, on the other hand, pointedly describes an incident in which he was “constantly fighting an uphill battle because the artist wants to draw dinosaurs” and getting into “terribly demoralizing” conversations with the artists over their apparent dinosaur obsession.

Figure 390: Steve Bissette and John Totleben's spider-demon
design for Anton Arcane. (From Saga of the Swamp Thing
#19, 1983)
In any case, with sales on the book dwindling and Pasko facing increasing commitments from his other career as a television writer, he stepped off the book after a story bringing back Anton Arcane, this time as a giant spider monster. By this point the book was DC’s lowest-selling title and was inches from cancellation, but Wein, perhaps out of some fondness for a title he had, after all, originally created a decade earlier decided to give the book one last chance, using it to try out a new writer, prompting his May, 1983 phone call to Northampton. It is important to understand just how low expectations were for this endeavor. The deadline for Moore’s first issue, in fact, was so absolute that the entire book would have been cancelled without a single issue of Moore’s being published had he and the art team (who were facing a variety of personal events such as impending fatherhood for Bissette and impending marriage for Totleben) missed the deadline. Adding to the tension was the fact that Pasko was falling increasingly behind on his scripts, to the point where he Bissette was stuck drawing Pasko’s final issue, Saga of the Swamp Thing #19, in three-page stretches from plots dictated over the phone, as opposed to from full scripts. All of this on a low-selling book meant that Moore, realistically, was probably going to get a handful of issues before the comic was cancelled and, if he was deemed to have fallen on his sword with sufficient grace, might get a slightly less tragically doomed job as a followup. 

Figure 391: Steve Bissette and John
Totleben were eager to draw Swamp
Thing in a way that highlighted his
vegetative nature. (From Saga of the
Swamp Thing
 #23, 1984)
Moore, however, approached the situation with his characteristic gusto. After his conversation with Wein, Moore received a package containing the Pasko run, and he immediately set out writing a fifteen page assessment of everything that was wrong with it and how he intended to fix it. The first and biggest problem Moore identified was that the root idea of Swamp Thing, though good for a few stories, was profoundly limited. This analysis included Moore’s description of the character as “Hamlet covered in snot. He just walks around feeling sorry for himself. That’s understandable, I mean I would too, but everybody knows that his quest to regain his lost humanity, that’s never going to happen. Because as soon as he does that, the book finishes.” But beyond that, Moore noted that there were larger problems, such as the fact that “other than being a bit lumpy and kind of greenish, the only thing that you can say about him is that he’s very strong. Which in the DC Universe - which back then had lots of people who could play ball with planets - being strong was quite vanilla, really” and that “we had to come up with a better way for the Swamp Thing to travel around, rather than constantly moving around the country upon freight trains or in the boot of a car or in some truck.” He also touched base with Bissette and Totleben, and found, unlike Pasko, that he was very much on the same page as his artists. They were eager to draw more horror content, and his desire to take greater advantage of Swamp Thing’s status as a vegetable monster found an immediate resonance in John Totleben’s desire to explore the fact that Swamp Thing was “this guy made out of moss and mud and these weeds and junk growing on him.” 

Figure 392: Dan Day's original pencils for the
first page of Alan Moore's first issue of Saga
of the Swamp Thing...
 (Originally from Steve
Bissette's blog
)
But for all the ambition, he still had to avoid crashing and burning on his way out of the gate. This was no small task. His first script, for Saga of the Swamp Thing #20, was drawn over a roughly two week period in July during which Wein was on vacation, having left with the instruction that if the issue wasn’t on his desk when he got back, it was going to be cancelled. The script was presumably submitted at some point in June - like most of Moore’s scripts, it’s written as a direct and conversational address to the artist, and its concluding sentence, “Love to everybody over there, hope you have better luck with your next Presidential elections than we’ve just had with ours, and I’ll speak to you soon,” dates it to sometime in the immediate aftermath of the June 9th general election in which Margaret Thatcher’s government won a substantially enlarged majority. 

Figure 393: ... and the published page
reworked by John Totleben from Day's
layout, and with Tatjana Wood's coloring.
Another consequence of the jumbled production schedule by this point was that the production of issues #19, 20, and 21 overlapped. Bissette was pencilling #19, and since #21 was always envisioned by Moore as the proper start to his run, with issue #20 serving to wrap up the stray plot lines of Pasko’s run in much the same way that his first two Captain Britain strips had cleaned up the debris of the aborted Thorpe run. This meant that issue #20 had to be penciled by a guest artist, although John Totleben provided inks, thus maintaining a consistency of style. (It is worth noting that the Bissette/Totleben team was a more collaborative pencil/ink team than many, and that Totleben had an unusually large degree of freedom to rework pages.) Moore was thus left in the uncomfortable position of writing his first issue for an unknown artist, meaning, as he admitted in the script, that “I’m afraid I haven’t been able to tailor it to your specific style as I would have done normally.” Moore also included his usual caveat regarding his infamously dense scripts, since you’re the guy actually sitting at the drawing board, you’re the one with the final say on what’s going to work and what isn’t. All my descriptions are really meant to do is give you a place to start out from if you happen to be drawing this on the monday [sic] after your entire family has been wiped out by Hurricane Tracey and you don’t have one good idea in your head. So don’t worry too much about the specifics… just try and pick up on the mood and the dramatic pace of the story and I’ll be happy.”

On top of the question marks over what the creative team on Saga of the Swamp Thing #20 would actually be and the fact that if the production schedule didn’t come off perfectly Moore would be out of a job without a single issue being published, Moore was faced with a third and more abstract problem, which was that Swamp Thing gave Moore a much larger canvas to work with than the short stories that he was accustomed to writing for UK audiences. Prior to Swamp Thing, his only single piece of comics narrative of comparable length was his Star Wars story “The Pandora Effect,” which is, charitably, not one of the highlights of his early career, in no small part because of how the extended page count sapped Moore’s usual gift for structure and momentum. And for many of the earliest issues of his Swamp Thing run one can see him consciously working through the possibilities of the extended form offer. Indeed, when sending the script for his first issue to Len Wein he noted that “it’ll take me another couple of issues to feel out the potential of having twenty three whole pages to work with each month, as opposed to the seven or eight that I’m used to.” 

Given all of this, it would hardly have been a surprise had Moore had a rough start. And to be fair, there are very few people who would argue with a straight face that “Loose Ends,” his first Swamp Thing story, is a better issue than Saga of the Swamp Thing #21, the legendary “The Anatomy Lesson,” or indeed that “Loose Ends” is a highlight of Moore’s run at all. Much of this is that the comic is oddly obscure: it was quietly dropped from the collected editions of Moore’s Swamp Thing run until 2009. It is, after all, what its title suggests: an issue concerned with wrapping up the loose ends of the Pasko era so that Moore can begin in proper with the next issue, a meticulous piece of self-contained horror that is a fantastic starting point in its own right.

Figure 394: One of the many double page spreads in
Alan Moore's first issue, in this case with the second
page's structure interrupted by the massive explosion.
(Art by Dan Day and John Totleben, from Saga of
the Swamp Thing
 #20, 1983)
The most striking thing about “Loose Ends” is its composition. Of its twenty-two panels, fully eighteen are based around double page spreads, giving the issue a tight and intricate sense of structure. Not all of this was down to Moore - his original script called for a splash page on page two as part of a three-page opening sequence, which penciller Dan Day reworked to open with a non-story splash page of Swamp Thing, putting all of the three-page sequence in a single double page spread that would have been two discrete pages in Moore’s original plan. And in other places the execution of the spreads is jumbled - one is bisected in print by an advertisement, and in several others the paralleled panel structures are disrupted by a failure to have the panels quite line up from page to page. But elsewhere Moore uses the two-page format to clever effect, such as a sequence that begins as two paralleled pages, but just over halfway through the second page is disrupted as a massive explosion takes place in the story, disrupting the panel structure. 

Figure 395: Moore's first issue famously
ends with the death of the main character.
(Art by Dan Day and John Totleben, from
Saga of the Swamp Thing #20, 1983)
The effect is that the seemingly vast canvas afforded by a twenty-three page story instead becomes a series of concrete encounters and exchanges that have their own discrete structures. In effect, Moore broke the bulk of his first issue into a series of two-page strips, as though he were writing an eleven-part series in the style of his early strips for Doctor Who Weekly. The issue is not quite as simplistic as that - he doesn’t do anything gratuitous like pack in cliffhangers every two pages - but one can nevertheless see Moore finding a way to ease himself into the structure. For the most part, however, the issue is somewhat pedestrian - it attempts to establish a new status quo for the major characters. Some of these bits of end-tying would take years to pay off - the character of Dwight Wicker, for instance, collaborates with General Sunderland on a plan to capture Swamp Thing, but after Sunderland dies in issue #21, Wicker proceeds to vanish for more than thirty issues. Liz and Dennis vanish for even longer, their last appearance being an ominous sequence in which Dennis muses, “‘All we have in common is the horror in our lives, Dennis.’ That’s what she said. But maybe horror was all it took. Maybe they didn’t need anything else to make it work. Maybe things would be okay between them just so long as they never ran out of horrors. She leans against him, scared, vulnerable, the way a woman should be. And Dennis Barclay runs. And Dennis Barclay smiles.” But the main one comes in the final pages, when Sunderland’s soldiers track down Swamp Thing and shoot him dead. This rather abrupt and unexpected resolution was the plot point that would set up Moore’s second, and altogether more famous issue. [continued]